California farmworkers struggle to find affordable housing

At the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, overcrowded dwellings turned into COVID-19 clusters, hitting agricultural workers disproportionately hard.

Living with complete strangers in overcrowded dwellings, living out of cars, or subletting garages and backyard sheds: these are the conditions where countless farmworker families dwell in California.

“These are the living conditions you would find in a third-world country, not the fifth largest economy, such as ours, here in the State of California,” said Assemblymember Robert Rivas (D-Salinas).

“This community has done backbreaking work to ensure that we all have food on our tables, and they deserve better,” said Rivas, who hosted the Assembly Housing Working Group on the Central Coast in early October, a series of regional roundtables to discuss housing needs for agriculture workers.

Ernestina Solorio knows firsthand the hardships faced by farmworkers in accessing decent and affordable housing. She earns slightly more than $2,000 per month picking strawberries. She lives in Watsonville with her four children and two grandchildren, all in the same three-bedroom house.

She spends more than 80% of her salary to rent a house that, with the support of caring neighbors, she tries to keep in good shape. Her landlord refuses to fix the moisture in the bathroom, to paint the cracked walls, and to change a worn and rotten carpet.

“Some of the farmworkers I work with pay much higher rents and they are forced to live in overcrowded houses, after all, I can’t complain,” she said, staring at the at her living room wall, with the paint peeling due to the humidity. “One tries to fix these things, it’s our home, but we have little means to do so.”

At the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, overcrowded dwellings turned into COVID-19 clusters, hitting agricultural workers disproportionately hard.

In June 2020, CalMatters team carried out an investigation comparing 20% of neighborhoods with the highest rate of COVID-19 to the 20% of neighborhoods with the lowest rate. According to its findings, “the hardest hit neighborhoods had three times the rate of overcrowding as the neighborhoods that have largely escaped the virus’s devastation,” in addition, “the most affected neighborhoods had twice the rate of poverty.”

As this investigation recalls, “about two-thirds of Californians in overcrowded homes are essential workers or live with at least one essential worker,” including agricultural laborers.

In July 2020, Governor Gavin Newsom launched the Housing for the Harvest program, an initiative to provide temporary hotel housing to farmworkers who need to isolate due to Covid-19.

This provisional solution, aimed to stem the tide of Covid-19 contagion, doesn’t address the underlying issue: the farmworker families need decent and affordable housing. Most farmworkers are paid the minimum wage – $14 per hour in CA – and low-income apartments are scarce.

“To pay the rent, a farmworker’s family that I worked with for many years ended up recruiting other people to come and live with them,” said Dr. Ann Lopez, the executive director of Center for Farmworker Families, an organization aimed to promote awareness about farmworkers’ living conditions in California.

“At one point they had 16 people in less than a thousand square feet and one bathroom. In the morning, everybody had to form a line to use it,” Lopez said.

On June 28, California lawmakers approved $130 million for improving farmworker housing. These public funds are allocated to contractors through the Joe Serna, Jr. Farmworker Housing Grant (FHWG) Program – that provides grants and deferred payment loans for the construction and rehabilitation of dwelling for farmworkers families.

Often, these public grants are not enough to cover the construction cost so contractors must raise additional funding.

“You will never have a building that is entirely funded with that money. To build buildings costs so much now that you have to look for tax credits: an investor from outside that will invest in the building and he will get a credit on their income tax for investing in it,” said Dana Clear, director of real estate development of CHISPA, the largest private nonprofit-housing developer based in Monterey County.

“To build a building of 40 apartments is going to take about a year and a half, but it will take over three to five years to find the funding,” said Clear.

This convoluted process does not respond to the urgent needs of farmworker families.

Farmworkers families occupy 60% of the affordable housing units offered by CHISPA in the Central Coast. The non-profit housing developer operates 23 buildings and 1,115 units for low-income families, who will pay no more than 30% of their salary to live in one of them.

The supply of accommodation offered by CHISPA is far from satisfying the demand. For instance, in Castroville, known for its artichoke crop, the length of the waiting list to access one of these units exceeds 1,000 applications, highlighting the urgency of additional housing.

“We close the list when it gets this long, because it is too discouraging to put additional people on the list who would not get to top of the list for years,” said Clear.

Faced with a lack of affordable housing, farm worker families choose to temporarily settle in seasonal labor camps – housing accommodations provided mainly by government agencies for seasonal farm labor.

“I got my apartment 22 years ago because I was very lucky. I got my household through a raffle, a lottery that you sign up for,” said Araceli Fernández, a farmworker living in Buena Vista Migrant Camp, in Watsonville. “This is how house allocation works here.”

Fernández paid $372 per month for a three-bedroom dwelling, a reasonable price, she said. However, there is a problem: this migrant camp only opens from April to December – the rest of the year it remains closed and empty – thus, farmworker families are forced to move.

“I would like the camp to be open all year round, especially for our kids,” said Fernández, pointing out the impact of its closure on children’s education.”When the camp closes, we have to go back to Mexico, and although they go to school there too, by the time we get back here, they have lost the rhythm of learning and are behind in class. We want our kids to have the opportunity to become doctors or lawyers, not just farmworkers.”

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